Smith Island tests the tourism waters

Cakes and charm could save tiny community from rising hardships

August 19, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

SMITH ISLAND - It wasn't nostalgia that prompted Dwight "Duke" Marshall to seek legislation honoring a multitiered cake he has loved since childhood.

No, the Smith Island layer cake needed to become Maryland's official dessert for a more practical reason: to boost the island's nascent tourism industry.

"No. 1, we need a way for people to keep making a living here," says Marshall, who, like many island natives these days, doesn't work as a waterman. "People are interested in our island way of life. And they're willing to pay for having these experiences."

Experiences such as taking a ferry to a quaint place in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay to buy an odd-looking confection from an old-fashioned general store. Or, better yet, to take a class from island women willing to show you how to bake the cake made of eight (or more) half-inch-thick layers bound by frosting.

As it has become harder and harder to earn a livelihood from the bay's few remaining crabs and oysters, many islanders have embraced the shift to tourism. An elaborate Internet site sports a quick-hit list of bed-and-breakfast cottages and a menu of island food - including huge crab cakes and, as a result of this year's law, the state's official dessert.

A kayak trail with 68 color-coded directional signs makes paddling easier through a labyrinth of marshy channels. Water taxis are piloted by watermen who've turned to hauling tourists to make ends meet, telling tales of their exploits in the "water business."

"What we've seen is that baby boom-age tourists want something experiential," says Jim Rapp, executive director of the regional tourism foundation Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences. "They want something authentic. They want to meet folks, eat what they eat, hear how they talk, learn how they live."

Liz and Patrick Cunningham of Bel Air are just the sort of visitors the island is searching for: tourists with a sweet tooth.

The couple came looking for a day trip a couple of years ago and literally missed the boat. They were left standing on the dock in Crisfield as a flotilla of small ferries, loaded with passengers and supplies, plowed a watery path to Maryland's only inhabited off-shore island. So this summer, when they tried again, they checked their watches.

"There was no way we were going to miss out again," said Liz Cunningham, 55, a medical billing specialist. "This place is culture shock, like going back in time. And who could turn down the cakes?"

The island's year-round population has dwindled to perhaps 250 in its three communities of Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point as people have moved away.

The watermen who remain are angry at state regulators over new rules that will cut short the season for catching female crabs by nearly two months. The regulations are another impediment to making a living the traditional way, they say.

Fewer crabs mean fewer watermen working the waters of Tangier Sound. In turn, membership in the cooperative of Smith Island women who pick crabs has dropped, said one of its founders, Janice Marshall, 63.

"I've wondered for years whether mine would be the last generation really living and growing up here," says Marshall (who is Duke Marshall's aunt). "The good news is we [the island] have four children [living] here now and one on the way."

Members of the crab-picking cooperative say it's hard to take on new customers because they can't supply enough crab meat to expand their business. The handful of island women continue picking the fluffy steamed meat from crabs caught by their husbands, but now there's also a gift shop, including CDs of them singing gospel music while they work.

The women are hoping to qualify for state grants that will help them add commercial ovens to bake island cakes in the winter months. Others have already modified home kitchens for baking and shipping cakes around the country.

Ferry captain Larry Laird has run the 42-foot Jayson II for more than 20 years, hauling the mail, visitors and his mainstay - islanders who must travel to the mainland for everything from health care to grocery shopping to entertainment.

"I have been getting some kayakers who'll come over and go camping overnight," said Laird. "The kayakers are different tourists. They want to get out there, not just walk and have a good island meal."

There's a kayak trail connecting the island's three small towns, and there are plans for a walking trail that will complement four B&Bs.

Despite the popularity of kayaking, paddlers must bring their own boats. Two of the B&Bs lend them to guests, but there is no rental service on the island.

There are even some island women who'll teach visitors how to bake each thin layer of a Smith Island cake. They'll do the same sort of thing in crab cake classes taught by Smith's best cooks.

The layer cakes are selling like crazy at a bakery in Salisbury. A new bakery, the Smith Island Cake Co., just opened in a former corner grocery in Ewell. You can also get the cakes at the little general store in Tylerton.

No one is imagining Smith without watermen as the backbone and symbol of island culture, but supporters say the new ventures could broaden the economic base and keep more islanders from having to leave home in search of jobs.

Duke Marshall, for instance, lives today in Pocomoke, where he owns an insurance company. But he never misses an opportunity to promote the place where he grew up. "I don't think watermen will ever disappear completely," he says, "but it's harder and harder to make a living."

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